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Donny Hathaway’s eternal Christmas gift

How the black national Christmas anthem came to be

“I want my music to live.”

— Donny Hathaway

Gwen’s not new to this, but she is true to this. Shipping packages all over the world with one headphone in — while occasionally checking the phone in a pocket on her work apron — is second nature. A dedicated employee of the U.S. Postal Service is accustomed to the hurricane of customers, requests and inquiries the holiday season brings. So she doesn’t mind carrying on a side conversation as she prepares to ship a package overseas for me.

“Completely random,” I say, “let me ask you a question.”

“Go ‘head, sweetie. How can I help you?”

“Off the top of your head, what’s your favorite Christmas song?”

Gwen looks at me, then to the ceiling and responds. “Probably Silent Night by The Temptations,” she says. “Mariah Carey’s one, too.”

“What about Donny Hathaway’s This Christmas?”

“Oh, my God! Yes, that one. No clue how that slipped my mind. It’s not Christmas until I hear that song.”

“It was Donny’s intention — all of our intention, really. We wanted to make a song that would become a standard.”

Created in the fall of 1970, the record is an annual event and, at 46, older than Hathaway was when he died on Jan. 13, 1979. This Christmas is a yearly tradition, especially in black America, in large part because that was the audience Hathaway targeted. The song is as much as an anticipated fixture of the holiday season as TBS’ 24-hour marathon of A Christmas Story or the NBA’s yearly quintuple header. It’s also a number that, much like Hathaway’s career, almost never happened.

For the Chicago-born Donny Hathaway, it was time to get back to work. His debut album, Everything Is Everything, was released July 1970, and housed the revolutionary single The Ghetto as well as the prideful and gospel-inspired To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Rolling Stone referred to Hathaway as “one of the most important black performers in recent years.” However, by the fall, he had his sights set on a new task. To create a Christmas anthem that would represent black America for the ages. There was Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby, Louis Armstrong’s Christmas In New Orleans and Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, but barring James Brown’s 1968 Santa Claus Goes Straight To The Ghetto and a few others, no true black Christmas anthem existed, or so Hathaway believed. Black artists had recorded — interpreted — holiday tunes, but they were mostly covers of songs created by white musicians.

Ric Powell is an accomplished composer, drummer and producer and was one of Hathaway’s closest friends. They met during their 1960s days at Howard University. The two bonded over music and sports — Powell says he taught Hathaway how to swim. And there were fraternal ties, of a sort: Powell is Omega, and Hathaway was an Alpha. “Donny was the most chocolate brother in Alpha,” Powell said with a hearty laugh. He currently lives in Miramar, Florida, a town roughly 30 minutes north of Miami. “Before Donny came aboard, the Omegas were winning the song fests [at Howard]. But when Donny started leading the Alphas, they started winning the song fests. Donny brought some good music to A-Phi-A.” Hathaway and Powell made up two-thirds of The Ric Powell Trio, and performed throughout the nation’s capital at famed nightspots such as Bohemian Caverns, Harambee House, Ed Murphy’s Supper Club and Billy Simpson’s. Powell often had to push Hathaway toward even local fame.

“It had a little theme like duh-duh-duh-dunna-duh-duh-dunna. We flipped the music, and we put our spin on it.”

“He’d come up in the church and was warned that if he played secular music that he was prone to have a heavy death like Sam Cooke or Nat King Cole,” said Powell. “You know, some of the people who had been in the church, and then got away from it. Donny was very hesitant about taking a job playing anything other than gospel.”

This all changed one afternoon at an audition at a downtown D.C. venue. Powell struggles to recall the name of the venue, but in his mind can still see the club’s staff standing in anticipation to judge The Trio’s music. The club’s owner, Billy Rice, enjoyed their music, though he suggested (re: demanded) they employ a lead singer. Powell had already given it thought beforehand, narrowing down a list of women singers he knew in the area. The owner, however, refused to pay for a fourth member. That’s when Powell said he presented Hathaway with the opportunity that not only changed his life, but changed music as a whole. With the entire club watching, Hathaway, the man who played the piano with angelic ease, finally sang, and it was a soothing voice and just as heavenly. He sang several songs, but it was Hathaway’s cover of Ray Charles’ Georgia that launched him into local orbit.

The club owner was sold. He paid the group $200. “You know, nobody in my family has ever made that much money,” Powell remembered Hathaway saying to him that night. “My grandmother cleaned fish and everything in St. Louis. She didn’t make that.”

Powell also recalled the day in Chicago’s Audio Finishers Studio that would inspire This Christmas. Hathaway couldn’t stop talking about his newest obsession — a Christmas anthem that would live longer than he ever could. One black America could call their own, by one of their own. Ron Pulliam, a well-known interior decorator in the area who was laying carpet that day in the studio, and per Powell, overheard the request and suggested Hathaway meet his friend and Chicago songwriter Nadine McKinnor.

Hathaway invited McKinnor to his office/studio where, according to Powell, she recited several of her songs in more of a spoken word-type delivery. One was a holiday single she’d written in 1967. Hathaway was immediately drawn to its infectiousness and immediately got to work. They are credited as co-writers. “He arranged it, produced it, recorded it like a weaver,” she said in a 2008 episode of TV One’s Unsung. “He just put it all together in his head.” And it was his wizardry that created the tune’s most memorable trait — the instrumentation.

“There was a cowboy picture out called The Magnificent Seven years ago,” Powell, now retired, recalled. “It had a little theme like duh-duh-duh-dunna-duh-duh-dunna. We flipped the music and we put our spin on it.”

Powell knew — from the moment Hathaway heard McKinnor perform the song — what it would become. Hathaway’s music is a case study in the black experience in America, then and now — its soul, its beauty, its pain and its frustration. This Christmas, released on Atco Records, an Atlantic Records subsidiary, is no different. “It was Donny’s intention — all of our intention, really,” Powell said, “that we wanted to make a song that would become a standard.”

The vibe in the session was positive. Even Hathaway the perfectionist was pleased. As were the local Chicago artists who helped record it. And Powell, who created the publishing company Kuumba Music with Hathaway, which held the rights to This Christmas, was too. “Kuumba” means “creativity” in Swahili and is one of the foundations of the Kwanzaa holiday. Everyone involved seemed to understand the importance of the record, and what it would mean to black America.

Fireside is blazing bright / We’re caroling through the night. And this Christmas, will be / A very special Christmas, for me.

“The Donny Hathaway fan was the everyday black man and woman struggling to pay their rent or their mortgage. Put their kids through school. Keep a job. Fall in love, fall out of love. Everybody,” said veteran radio personality, and music activist/strategist Dyana Williams. “He connected with everybody across the board. We didn’t know much about him personally. We just knew that we loved his music and his songs because they made us feel good.”

This Christmas oozed upbeat soulfulness and showcased the complexity that was being black during a time of the year that had come to be associated with love and prosperity … in a country that didn’t always promise such. “This Christmas was special,” said Powell. “And when you listen to it, was supposed to put you in a good spirit.”

To understand the vibe of the record is to also understand why it was important to Hathaway to record it in Chicago. While St. Louis stakes claim to raising Donny, and D.C. can say it was there where he first showed signs of becoming a star, the Windy City would always be home. He was born there. And Hathaway moved back to Chicago when he left Howard after his junior year.

In the late ’60s, and early ’70s, Chicago was perhaps the most Afrocentric city in America. Phil Cohran, the Afro-Arts theater and even The Pharaohs (the predecessor to what became Earth, Wind & Fire) all originated on the city’s South Side. It was here, too, where Powell also befriended Muhammad Ali during his boxing exile. Black businesses not only lived in Chicago, they thrived there, headlined by Johnson Publishing Co.’s Ebony and Jet, and Johnson Products. “Blackness,” Powell said sternly, “wasn’t just a fad or a trend. We wanted to achieve that aspect of it being a black national Christmas anthem.”

Hathaway, tragically, wouldn’t live to see the song’s 10th birthday. He was dead by January 1979 at 33 years old, the result of an apparent suicide at New York’s famed luxury hotel Essex House. Nearly half a century later, his death remains one of the most speculated about and controversial in pop culture. The eternal question is whether he took his own life, or someone or something far more sinister was at play.

Powell also recalled the day in Chicago’s Audio Finishers Studio that would inspire This Christmas.

In the mid-’70s, following two additional solo albums, 1971’s self-titled project and 1973’s Extension of a Man as well as 1972’s duet LP with Roberta Flack — which produced the Grammy-winning single Where Is The Love, Hathaway abruptly left music. Hathaway had officially been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic during a time when mental health awareness, knowledge and stereotypes were prehistoric and belittling. His ex-wife, Eulaulah, said he took up to 14 pills two or three times per day. Suicide is a leading cause of death for paranoid schizophrenics.

Presiding over his funeral, the Rev. Jesse Jackson urged mourners to celebrate Hathaway’s genius. “Often geniuses die young,” he said. “They get there quicker. Their impact penetrates. It gets deeper.” Part of Hathaway’s legacy is firmly entrenched in the holiday season. This Christmas has grown larger in Hathaway’s death, inspiring cover versions spanning generations from acts such as The Temptations, Dru Hill, Chris Brown, Destiny’s Child, Usher, Mary J. Blige and others.

No amount of money or accolades, Powell says, compares with the memories he has of Hathaway, their holiday classic in particular. Forty-six years later, he still misses his friend dearly. He’s proud of what Hathaway accomplished, but the pain of “what if” is very much apparent in his voice. He wishes Hathaway had lived longer — to see his work’s true impact, and the voices he helped inspire. And Powell wishes Hathaway were around to see how much of a necessary ornament This Christmas has become to the black holiday experience. The song did exactly what Hathaway said it would do.

“We were able to reach people all over,” said Powell. “I’m on Facebook and people will message me saying they didn’t know I was part of that. They’ll say that’s their favorite Christmas song. People all over the country say that. That, itself, has a big meaning for me.”

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.